“To live in a country where you can take an ugly old mountain and put faces on it—faces of great Americans who did so much to make our country super great—well, that just makes me…proud to be an American!” No, this perversely patriotic phrase wasn’t uttered at one of Trump’s demented and near unintelligible Rose Garden press conferences or spoken with a rictus-like grin by the campily cadaverous Kellyanne Conway on Fox News. It was proclaimed twenty years ago by pre-Real Housewives Denise Richards playing the teenage beauty queen to beat Rebecca Leeman in the film Drop Dead Gorgeous as she and her fellow contestants parade in a circle to “This Land Is Your Land,” while sporting enormous kitsch hats featuring American icons like the Statue of Liberty, a giant ball of twine, and the atomic bomb.
Sometimes, dear Filthy Dreams readers, even I have regrets. One of my biggest and most recent is not viewing this masterpiece of a film before it reappeared on Hulu for its 20-year anniversary. Drop Dead Gorgeous, directed by The State’s Michael Patrick Jann and written by Lona Williams (who also appears in the film as the mousey and near mute with contempt third pageant judge) is simply a triumph of camp and trash aesthetics, and a tarnished, beer can-welded example of the utter failure of the American dream in all of its tacky hilarity. Why wasn’t I clued in to its genius before now? Partially it was due to the impossibility of finding it, relegated to the dusty bins of VHS and DVDs at your local thrift store. The film was also released in 1999 at the height of late 90s teen flicks like She’s All That, 10 Things I Hate About You, American Pie, and that deliciously psychosexual drama Cruel Intentions (which probably also deserves another look), rendering it lost in a sea of teen angst, romance, and makeovers. But Drop Dead Gorgeous, unlike these other teen vehicles, has a deeper, darker and more biting critique of our chaotic mess of a country, and its obsession with winners and losers.
On the surface, the plot of the film is fairly traditional: a mockumentary about the Sarah Rose Cosmetics American Teen Princess Pageant. There’s the previously mentioned frontrunner Becky, the richest girl in town with a father that outsources her costume creation to Mexican labor and manic former beauty queen mother Gladys, played in a maniacal tour de force performance by Kristie Alley. Becky is pitted against Kristen Dunst’s unlikely beauty queen Amber Atkins, a wholesome girl-next-door-type if your next-door neighbor lived in a trailer. Amber enters the beauty contest to be like her idol Diane Sawyer, but something tells me Diane never practiced her tap dance routine while putting makeup on corpses at a funeral home. Other familiar faces appear like Amy Adams as a wide-eyed horny cheerleader, and the late and wonderful Brittany Murphy whose character seems to be there just to giggle and provide this one GIF-worthy moment:
However, the film is anything but typical, lying somewhere between a Christopher Guest film, Sordid Lives, and I, Tonya in its reveling in a very particular kind of trash humor. It has everything: exploding trailers, beer cans welded to hands (“ruined a good pair of press-ons”), references to absent carny fathers (“once a carny, always a carny”), and perhaps the best dancing duet with Jesus I’ve ever seen. In particular, Ellen Barkin and Allison Janey are visions and role models playing Amber’s white trash mother Annette and her drunk friend Loretta respectively, who while they are obvious train wrecks, are, like Amber who they clearly care for, the messy hearts of the film and the people I’d most like to party with.
Overall, the film is a flawless satire of the rabid, winning-at-all-costs nature of American success or at least, striving, and the inevitable systemic failure that disallows any winners at all. And it could not be timelier. Ironically, even as the visual art world keeps trying to clamor to be the most relevant to our times, popular media, even outdated popular media like Drop Dead Gorgeous, somehow feel more equipped to depict, satirize, and skewer our current society. It may be that it’s not just a bunch of people with Yale degrees talking to one another. Plus, a sense of humor always helps.
One reason the film is so effective in its critique is the realism of its setting in the small town of Mount Rose, Minnesota (yes, the Fargo-like accents cement its location almost immediately), which was based off of Lona Williams’s own hometown of Rosemount. And boy, you can tell, and its not just the table spread of Hawaiian rolls and Jello salad. Mount Rose is a perfect encapsulation of the claustrophobically close-minded, mostly white Midwestern suburb. These are places where nothing has apparently changed much, except its dissolution. A bleached sign advertises the town’s “oldest living Lutheran” who is now “dead as a doornail,” but the sign with her stiff dour expression remains standing. However ragged, towns like Mount Rose define themselves favorably against the heathens in the big cities (“You will not find a ‘back room’ in one of our video stores. No, that filth is better left to the sin cities,” says Gladys). Instead, they believe in three things: God, guns and country, all of which the film gleefully revels in, including a scene where Becky mentions her 9th birthday present–a gun that was gifted with a card reading “Jesus loves winners.” He sure does, baby.
The class distinctions in this small town are also spot-on. Even though the Leemans are the richest family in town due to a successful furniture store, leading Loretta to sneer, “It’s front page news when one of them takes a shit,” they’d be viewed, in the grand scheme of American social hierarchy, as lower class just the same by the actual 1%. Though they think they’re better than the trailer dwellers like the Atkins, they’re totally white trash too. Just the sheer amount of references to Cops should prove that the entire town is trash. And this trash universality is true of many small suburbs. I know, because I grew up in one.
Despite this realism, critics, at the time, didn’t seem to understand the film’s mastery. In fact, not only did critics slam Drop Dead Gorgeous, but it was a complete flop, a dud, a box office bust. Even today, the film only has a paltry 46% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a criminal travesty that we must rectify! How DARE anyone not like this film?! What were the pearl-clutching critics’ problems? Well, mostly they hated the offensive jokes in the film. Hollywood Reporter called it “a mockumentary of numbingly unfunny proportions,” and the New York Post ironically labeled it “crude and witless.” And sure, watching an addled and anorexic former beauty queen get wheeled around onstage while lipsynching “Don’t Cry Out Loud” in a daze probably isn’t the most politically correct scene. But, it is transcendent. Anyway, trash is always tasteless, so what did they expect?
And this may actually point to the problem critics had with the film in the first place. In particular, the San Francisco Examiner seemed to expose this bias, stating the film “should be renamed ‘Drop Dead Ghetto’ and hauled off to the ‘Jerry Springer’ hall of shame.” Sheesh! It’s as if the critics, no matter where they came from, didn’t want to admit they relate and see themselves in these tacky white trash characters. But, I certainly do-these are my people!
However, I’m not the only one loudly singing the praises of Drop Dead Gorgeous from the top of my lungs. Jia Tolentino recently called the film possibly her “favorite movie of all time” in The New Yorker. In her defense of the flick, Tolentino pinpoints its inherent genius in the dark depiction of the sadism of teenage girlhood: “But what “Drop Dead Gorgeous” understands so well is that being a teen-age girl is, in fact, deranged and dehumanizing and frequently unsubtle. It certainly felt that way at the turn of the twenty-first century, when visible G-strings and virginity pledges were in vogue simultaneously, and young female pop stars were flagrantly doing exactly what is expected of contestants in a teen beauty pageant—performing desirability while projecting naïveté.” While, sure, teen girls can be horrendous, I think the film’s strength lies in its exposure of how deranged and dehumanizing the myth of the American dream can be.
I mean, aren’t beauty competitions the most quintessentially American of pastimes? The cheese, the potential exploitation, the strained patriotism (the theme for the pageant in the film was “Proud to be an American.” The other years? “Buy American,” “USA is A-OK!” and “Amer-I-can!”), and the strange tradition that should have ended decades ago. As Gladys says, “I know what your big city, no bra-wearing, hairy-legged women libbers might say: they’d say the pageant is old-fashioned and demeaning to the girls.” Pageants are also prime examples of an absolute determination to win, in contrast to all those losers out there. Beauty competitions exemplify that division between winners and losers that is baked into the American imaginary–certainly now with Trump consistently yammering about dividing the world into those two categories, much like Alley’s Gladys. I mean, beauty competitions are so American that our democracy stumbled, faltered, and fell at one, unbeknownst to us all at the time, during the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow.
Because of this, there have been several beauty pageant-focused films that have taken on the country’s monomaniacal urge to win. In The Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam analyzes the cathartic failure of Little Miss Sunshine’s Olive and her raunchy dance routine, which sticks it to those little Jon Benet’s and electrifies her loser family, allowing them to embrace failure as a subversive act. As Halberstam writes, “Olive is destined to fail, and to fail spectacularly. But while her failure could be the source of misery and humiliation, and while it does indeed deliver precisely this, it also leads to a kind of ecstatic exposure of the contradictions of a society obsessed with meaningless competition. By implication it also reveals the precarious models of success by which American families live and die” (5).
Like Little Miss Sunshine, Drop Dead Gorgeous also questions these weak models of success. Gladys, in particular, is absurdly obsessed with her daughter winning that she becomes role model-worthy in her sheer grotesque and murderous ambition. However, to me, Drop Dead Gorgeous takes this a step further, by launching a more systemic critique. Whereas Little Miss Sunshine comes from, as Halberstam notes, “the perspective from the loser in the world that is interested in only winners,” Drop Dead Gorgeous shows audiences, quite correctly, that even winners are trapped by the American dream’s scam. And the beauty competition is the American dream. It’s no mistake that the Sarah Rose Cosmetics American Teen Princess Beauty Pageant started around World War II, after which the promise of the American dream would be at its height. Since then, as seen in the film, things have taken a slide. And yet, the girls still see winning the pageant as some way out of their shitty town with a paltry scholarship, unlike the boys whose options to leave and succeed are “hockey scholarships or prison.”
Take, for example, one of the final scenes in which Amber makes it to the national stage of the beauty competition, after becoming the winner by default due to some faulty swan wiring, and bad shellfish. Arriving at the Sarah Rose Cosmetics offices, the bus full of beauty queens have the horrible realization that the Sarah Rose Cosmetics complex has been abandoned and shuttered, seized by the IRS for tax evasion. All that scratching and clawing was for nothing as this corporation did what corporations do–scam and grift their way out of the system. The other beauty queens riot, smashing windows and knocking down its sculptural logo all to the score of “Beautiful Dreamer.” Not Amber, though. She turns and gets back on the bus with the realization that this dream was one big con.
While Little Miss Sunshine’s main tension was between the perfectly coiffed success stories and the fuck-ups, Drop Dead Gorgeous presents a battle that seems even more contemporary: a corporation hocking a false hope of success that is actually shirking their financial responsibilities, screwing over those who climbed their way to try to get there. This is the scam of Trump, of Mary Boone, and of countless other major American companies screwing over everyone else in the country–the ones that promise a dream and a fantasy, while grifting as much and as hard as they can. And maybe someday, like Amber, we’ll all recognize the scam too. Or we can do like Loretta and Annette, and just laugh.